You got your start in Print Journalism as a trainee reporter at the Standard Newspaper in the early 1960s. What made you want to pursue a career in Journalism and was it difficult for you to get into the field?
My interest in writing started early in primary school. I would read stories in newspapers and magazines and rewrite them from memory using my own words. My father Francis Khamisi was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines. He was also a writer and often contributed articles to the Mombasa Times and other publications. He was the first African Editor at the East African Standard in 1939. After spending time in politics, he was called back by the Standard to be the Chief Editor of Baraza, its weekly newspaper in 1961. It was while there that I got a breakthrough into Journalism. I applied and was employed as a proof-reader at the Standard newspaper. After about 6 months, I became an intern at Baraza dealing mostly with Letters to the Editor. I eventually moved across to the white-dominated newsroom of the Standard as a cub reporter. The rest, as they say, is history.
In your memoir, Dash Before Dusk: A Slave Descendants Journey In Freedom you talk about experiencing racism in the newsroom as a trainee Journalist and earning your first byline by sheer luck because there was no white reporter available to cover a press conference that particular day. What was it like cutting your teeth in that environment and has what you learnt in those early days, had an impact on your writing style today?
Initially, my job as a junior reporter at the Standard was to receive by phone, stories sent in by reporters and correspondents from the field. Most of the time I had difficulty understanding the spoken English of the white reporters. After all, I was a Form 2 (high school) drop-out. However, there is a saying that you fake it until you make it. One day, a big story broke out and the more experienced reporters were all out on assignment, so I was dispatched to cover it. At the end of the day, it was not a perfect piece of writing but it helped get my feet in the door. From thereon I was assigned to the courts to report on minor criminal cases. Working alongside those experienced journalists gave me an opportunity to learn the basics of turning out a clean written copy. It was certainly a stepping stone that got me to where I am today.
How did you make the move from The Standard to The Nation?
While I enjoyed working at the Standard, I did not particularly favor the idea of working in close proximity with my father. I wanted to chart my own path in journalism independent of my father and I also wanted to prove to my father that I could survive in other situations. The Nation Group of newspapers was barely two years old and was searching for journalists to employ. One morning I came into the Standard newsroom and handed over my resignation letter and within days I was at Nation House on Tom Mboya Street working as a features editor for TaifaLeo.
In 1964, right after Independence, you moved from Nation Media Group to Voice of Kenya (VOK), now known as KBC to work in Broadcast. What made you take the leap into Broadcast Journalism and what was your transition like?
I moved to Voice of Kenya when the government made a decision to Africanize the newsroom at Broadcasting House. At that time, it was dominated by whites. The then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Achieng Oneko, asked Boaz Omori, the Chief Editor of the Nation, to take a similar position at VOK and lead the Africanization team. He picked me, a reporter from the Standard, and a press officer at the Department of Information, to join him at VOK. It was another learning experience for me. Writing for newspapers is quite different from writing for radio and television. While one has the luxury of space in the former, it is not the case with electronic media. In radio and television reporting and editing, you are compelled to count words and lines which means you have to be concise but to the point, highlighting the most important parts of the story from the word go. The sentences must be short and the meaning unambiguous. Working at VOK newsroom also gave me a chance to try my voice on air. I read news and commentaries and sometimes did voice overs. It was quite interesting.
In your memoir, you speak candidly about the despair you felt when you had to drop out of high school when your father lost his job as well as a major election in 1961, yet you went on to graduate from The University of Maryland with a BSc. In Journalism and Government. How did you manage to complete your studies and what was it like returning to school many years later?
I consider myself to be one of those unlucky guys who did not have the opportunity to go to a government secondary school (high school) but that didn’t tamper my desire for knowledge. After repeating and failing to get a second chance to write the Kenya African Preliminary Examination (KAPE), I chose to take an external examination offered by the Ministry of Education. I passed and enrolled in a private high school. I also took courses in typing and book-keeping. I still consider myself to be one of the fastest typists around. My entry into broadcast journalism later allowed me to produce news programs for the American Embassy Information Office. It was while doing that, that I was offered a job as a Swahili broadcaster at the Voice of America(VOA) in Washington DC and got the chance to further my education. I took university entry examinations and became a part-time student. In America, they put you on probation for a year and during that period you have to attain an average of B+ before being considered for active admission. Some years later, I graduated from the University of Maryland University College with a BSc in Journalism and Government.
In 1974, you became a Press Attaché with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Was it a difficult role to step into and did you feel that your background in Print and Broadcast prepared you for the role?
The time came when I yearned to return home. There were many employment opportunities in the Kenya government then. I applied for an Information Officer position and was appointed to it. I resigned from VOA and headed home. A year later, I was one of several officers posted to the Embassies abroad as Press Attachés. I was sent to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Yes, moving from the newsroom to a bureaucracy was not easy but I learnt quickly. I ensured my Ambassador was fully briefed about world events by the time he arrived at the office in the morning and wrote many articles on the positive events in Kenya which were published in local publications. It was a diplomatic life with its own advantages and disadvantages but I generally liked the change.
In your books, you speak alot about your father – his work ethic, his entrepreneurial spirit, his work as a community organizer , as well as his failings. It seems he had a major impact on your life – what would you say is the most important lesson you learnt from your father?
My father had a big impact on my life. He was a strict disciplinarian, a keen time-keeper, and a respecter of others. I believe I benefited from all those virtues. I laud him for many things that have made me who I am today.
In your book, The Wretched Africans: A study of Rabai and Freretown Slave Settlements you explore your roots as a descendant of slaves from Malawi and Tanganyika. Why has it been so important for you to trace your roots and what impact has doing so had on you as a man and as a writer?
The Wretched Africans opened my mind to my own history. After writing my autobiography, Dash Before Dusk, I felt I needed more to explain the lives and times of my ancestors. My story was bigger and I wanted to tell it in more detail. So, I decided to explore the whole history of 19th century slaves who were forcefully captured, some taken across oceans and the lucky ones rescued and resettled at the Kenya coast. The history may have been told many times by missionaries and explorers but theirs was told from a Western perspective. They lauded the work of the whites but degraded the role Africans played in the emancipation process. Although Africans were slaves, they were also heroes. They survived the harshest of conditions and the lucky ones survived to tell the story, people like Juma Mbotela. I was very proud as a descendant of slavery to be the one to tell that story from an African perspective. It gave me a lot of pleasure and satisfaction.
In the same book, you go to great pains to document the contributions former slaves and their descendants have made to the Kenyan economy. Why was that so important to you?
From the descendants also came more heroes. Some of the slave descendants became the most educated. They worked as teachers and telegraphists in places as far away as Uganda and Tanzania. They contributed immensely to the promotion of Christianity, a task the white missionaries like Rebmann and Kraft failed miserably. We also had politicians who played a crucial role in the independence struggle, people like my father, Tom Mbotela who was assassinated in Nairobi in the 1950s, and others. Slavery also produced eminent descendant civil servants, among them Edgar Manasseh who was a top official in the tax department.
I am a hopeful romantic and one of my favorite parts of your memoir was the chapter on meeting your wife, Doretha Savage. What was it like being in a cross-cultural marriage in the early 1970s?
Although many Kenyans at the time considered marriage across cultural lines taboo, I didn’t think so myself. I am not a traditionalist although I respect the cultures and traditions of different people. I didn’t feel indebted to anyone in deciding who to marry. I found a perfect wife and I married her. This year, we celebrate 44 years of marriage.
Your career has had many different iterations; Journalist, Entrepreneur, Diplomat, Politician and now a full time Writer and Publisher. Have all these segue ways been by design and what have been your most fulfilling and most challenging roles thus far?
There were three things I wanted to do with my life: to become a Journalist, a Diplomat and a Politician. I wanted to copy my father who was both a Politician and a Journalist but I also wanted to work in the foreign service to take advantage of overseas travel and gain a broader experience of the world around me. I managed to accomplish all the three and surprisingly I enjoyed all of them. However, my passion remains in writing. God willing, I will write until I can’t write anymore.
So far, you’ve published 5 non-fiction books steeped in African history and politics. How have you selected your writing topics and what is your writing process like?
So far, my interest has been in history and social issues. I may expand to other areas although I feel there is still a lot to be explored in my preferred fields. Once I settle on a subject matter, I do a lot of digging and research continues throughout the writing process. I write full time so, I wake up in the morning, say my prayers and go straight to my desk. I eat my cereal as I work. I work between 8 – 10 hours a day, giving myself a 2 hour break to go to the gym. My book planning occurs at night when its quiet and I can’t sleep. That is when I plan for the next day and work on the tittle, the sub-tittle and table of contents. I am a relentless writer. I write all day long until I exhaust my thoughts for that day. The biggest challenge I face has to do with organizing or formatting material. In school and college composition, students are encouraged to start with an outline. I don’t do that in my writing, and that is probably my undoing. All my organization is done mentally (at night). Once that is established, I just sit down on my computer and start writing until that section is done. The problem comes when I have to organize those sections so that they flow and make sense. Thus, I end up shuffling chapters until the very last minute before the material goes to the editor. In the case of Dash Before Dusk, I started writing chapters from midway to the end instead of starting from beginning. I then went back to the beginning and wrote until I linked up with the midway material. It was weird but that is how I chose to write that book.
Your last 3 books have been self-published. What made you take the bold step of publishing and distributing your own books?
On the question of publishing, I usually examine all options, the end game being to get the book to the reader. There are several paths a writer can follow to achieve that. For example, one can self-publish which is a fairly straightforward pathway though expensive, or spend time looking for an established publisher. For well-established writers like Ngugi wa Thiongó, finding a publisher may not a problem at all. However, what I discovered was that getting my books mainstream publisher was not only time-consuming but stressful. The process of approval takes too long and there is no guarantee of acceptance. So, I when I finished the manuscript of Politics of Betrayal I made a decision to self-publish. I looked at several companies in the US and settled on one. However, with my audience thousands of miles away in Kenya, I had to deal with the problem of how to get the book to Kenyan readers. Instead of transporting the books at a very high cost I used the electronic files prepared by the printer in the US to have the book reprinted in Kenya. It was much cheaper that way than trying to ship the books home. The advantage of self-publishing is that the author has full control of the manuscript and can make changes as he or she wants. When it came to Dash before Dusk, The East African Educational Publishers were quite happy to publish it at little cost to me but that meant losing control of the processes as an author. Both the Wretched Africans and Looters and Grabbers were published in the US though the former was printed in Kenya. Printing in Kenya is very expensive and the quality cannot be guaranteed. I printed Looters at a much cheaper price in the US and the standard of work was quite high. Again, I had to contend with the problem of shipping. That is why readers do not understand why Looters is so expensive in Kenya. For every book I ship to Kenya, I pay KSh. 1,700/-.
From the outside looking in, it seems, you’ve lived such a colorful, textured life. Knowing what you know now what advice would you give to a young person starting out and building a career?
For upcoming authors, my advice is to follow the simple motto: don’t give up. Writing is a lonesome effort. It requires mental discipline and focus as well as a commitment to get the work done but it is also an enjoyable profession, crafting words and sentences in a way that pleases the writer and enchants the reader. However, it is not a lucrative endeavor. If you are in it to make money then this is not your line of work. The majority of writers are struggling, and even the more established often must find full time work to meet their needs.
You can read more of Joe’s work and purchase his books from Amazon.